“What Is the Highest Law?”

This was the title of the November 11 sermon by Rev. Tim  Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

Stewardship Moment for Justice was presented by Rev. Dr. Jimmie Hawkins, Director of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. He discussed the activities of the Office, including its  actions to help change the cash-bail system in the U.S. while also combating  the silo effect of interacting only with like-minded people.

Prayer of Confession. Associate Pastor Rev. David Shinn led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “Gracious God, by day and by night we lift our prayers to you, crying out for justice, yearning for what is right, longing for your peace. Replenish our strength and stir up our hope, as we look for signs of your coming reign. Keep us working and praying for the day when your justice will roll down like waters, and your righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And fill us with the peace that passes all understanding—the deep peace of Jesus Christ, our Savior, in whose holy name we pray. Amen.”

 Listening for the Word

Holy Scripture:  Matthew 22:34-40 (NRSV):

“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’  [Jesus]  said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

Sermon:

“This morning’s gospel passage is set in the midst of a debate between Jewish leaders, the Sadducees and Pharisees. In first century Israel they were powerful competing elites connected to the Temple in Jerusalem. They often disagreed on the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures.”

“Matthew presents us with a window into their debate as it draws in Jesus. They ask him about paying taxes to Rome, because they disagree on what they should do. They ask Jesus about resurrection because they disagree about life after death. They’re at odds over interpretation of the law.”

“So when the lawyer asks Jesus a question it’s not merely to trap him, as we Christians often read the text. It’s more likely a local debate in which they want Jesus’ opinion. The lawyer genuinely wants Jesus to weigh in: does he support the Sadducees or the Pharisees?”

“The scene is not that different from what plays out among groups of Christians today. We debate the meaning of scripture, and we want Jesus on our side.”

“’Teacher,’ the lawyer asks, ‘Which commandment in the law is the greatest?’”

“It’s a good question. Among the 613 laws in the Hebrew Scriptures, he wants to know which is most important. It’s a bottom-line question, and we should listen carefully to the answer Jesus gives. He’s speaking not merely to that Pharisee or to others eager to hear his response. He’s speaking to us [too].”.

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’  Jesus says, reaching back to Deuteronomy [6:5]. ‘This is the greatest and first commandment.’”

“But he doesn’t stop there.”

“’And a second is like it,’ Jesus says, this time going back to Leviticus [19:18]. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’’”

“But he’s not done. Jesus wants to clarify his response and aim it at the interpretation of all the ancient texts, so he throws in a bonus answer: ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22:38-40)”

“The fundamental rule of interpreting scripture, Jesus is explaining here, is the law of love. If the interpretation of a text points in the direction of God’s love, if it amplifies God’s desire that we love one another, if it shines light on the unconditional love of God, then we have understood the Bible in the way Jesus wants us to read it.”

“I wonder if the response of Jesus settles anything. Did the Sadducees and Pharisees walk away saying to one another, ‘We’ve been going about this all wrong. Our faith wants us to start not with law, not with the rules, not with the doctrine, not with the strict definition of what’s right and wrong, but with love.”’

“That’s the takeaway from this text for us, as followers of Jesus. The starting point and the end point in our encounter with the world, with our neighbors, with those with whom we disagree, even with those we consider enemies, the starting point and the end point is always, always, always, the love of God.”

“To love in the way of Jesus we cannot keep putting ourselves at the center.”

“When Jesus says that all scripture ‘hangs’ on the love of God and love of neighbor, the image of a clothesline comes to mind – a long line representing the love of God and the love of neighbor, stretching across all of scripture. Each biblical story, the psalms and the prophets, the formative narratives of the Hebrew people – we see them all hanging there, on that one line.”

“Then we notice that the line is longer, and stretches even further. We see the parables of Jesus, the healings, the cross and resurrection, hanging on that line of love. And the line keeps stretching. The letters to the first Christian communities are hanging there, and the words of the early councils of the church.

“And that clothesline of love keeps stretching, through the spread of Christian faith around the world, through many generations of faithful followers. Nothing stops it. The line keeps going – the commandment to love God and to love neighbor, as we love ourselves – it keeps going right into the life of this congregation…and what is hanging there on that clothesline in our life together?”

“We see our worship every Sunday for more than 161 years. We see our welcome of Chinese newcomers in the 19th century, when they were scorned by others. We see the schools we started among immigrant children living on the flats along the river in the late 1800’s. We see our ownership of Abbott Hospital and our role in offering medical care and training to thousands in the middle years of the 20th century, We see our support of mission in other lands that evolved into our global partnerships today.”

“It’s all hanging on that long line of love stretching through our life.”

“We see the 16 churches Westminster has helped launch over the years, including Kwanzaa, now Liberty Church, the state’s only African-American Presbyterian congregation. We see that partner church there, together with us on the long line of the love of Jesus.”

“We see our church calling and installing [today] an Associate Pastor for Justice and Mission, Alanna Simone Tyler, nurtured by our partner congregation in north Minneapolis.”

“It’s all there.”

“We see Westminster’s willingness to work for marriage equality and to stand up for justice by advocating for an end to racism, for sensible gun safety, and for more affordable housing. We see Westminster using our new facility to welcome people coming in off the streets.”

Our life as a Christian community hangs on a clothesline of love that stretches all the way back to Jesus and on into the future.” (Emphasis added.)

“And we’ve learned that to love in the way of Jesus, the other must always be at the heart of our concern, especially when the other is vulnerable, always at the center of our concern.”

“’No one has greater love than this,’ Jesus says, than ‘to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ (John 15:13)

“One hundred years ago today, at 11AM on November 11, 1918, the Armistice ending the Great War was signed. Inscribed on the bronze plaque in the Cloister Hall are the names of 191 men and women of this church who served in what was to have been the war to make the world safe for democracy. They were prepared to lay down their lives for others – and seven of them did.”

“During the war the women of the church formed the Westminster unit of the Red Cross. They ran one of the largest volunteer medical supply programs in the country, preparing bandages, garments, and other materials for our soldiers, orphans, and refugees. The women of Westminster produced and sent abroad more than 366,000 articles.”

“When troops came through town on their way to being deployed, Westminster families saw them in worship and invited them home to Sunday dinner after church. Westminster’s pastor at the time, [Rev.] John Bushnell, whose own son’s name is on that plaque as having served in the Navy during the war, describes hosting three soldiers at one such Sunday afternoon meal:

  • ‘The talk centered about their home lives and it was found that one was a Catholic, one a Methodist, and one a Mormon, all three feeling entirely at home with a Presbyterian minister’s family. It was a local example of the leveling or elevating process of common great cause, eliminating all distinctions and creating the common denominator of an elemental human emergency.’”

“As we mark Veterans Day tomorrow we acknowledge that U.S. soldiers continue to fight in Afghanistan and other lands, without a sense of ‘elemental human emergency’ and no perception of a ‘common great cause.’ But, still, they serve on behalf of the nation and we must not forget them.”

“During World War I, as we bade farewell to those going to serve, prayers were lifted each Sunday. Large American flags draped the front of the organ, as well as a banner with stars representing every man from the church serving overseas. Flags of our allies were placed in front of the pulpit. A ‘Westminster War Letter’ helped people keep track of our soldiers.”

“The congregation wept with the families of those whose sons were killed. The first to die was Edward Phinney, a deacon of the church. To love in the way of Jesus means to be willing to give up privilege and power – even life itself – so that others might live. Fred Wagner, a candidate for the ministry, was later killed in battle in France.”

“Nine-and-a-half million soldiers on all sides died in the Great War, the war that was to end all wars. Another 10 million civilians perished. More than 21 million were injured.”

“Westminster did not romanticize or glorify the war. Referring to the great loss of life, the Rev. Bushnell wrote, ‘It made us understand and hate war as never before.’”

“Following the Armistice of 1918, the Rev. Bushnell described war as ‘an affront to Deity, to (hu)mankind, and all the elements that constitute a moral universe.’”

“Speaking 20 years later, in 1938, as Europe was moving toward war again, he wrote, using words that may sound applicable to us in our time:

  • ‘There is at present far more fear harassing the human family, more despair of the (unity of humankind), more bitter strife and hatred between nations, more greed, more lust than before.’ (All quotes and other information from John E. Bushnell, The History of Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1907-1937 [Minneapolis, Lund Press; 1938], pp.21-31)”

“The response to the bitterness, hatred, and fear that enveloped the human family then and the response to the bitterness, hatred, and fear that envelops us now is not more war and more weaponry and more violence, but, rather, that which Jesus says to the Pharisee long ago, when asked which was the highest of all the laws: ‘The first and greatest commandment,’ Jesus says,

  • ‘Is to love the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and the second is like it, to love neighbor as yourself. On those two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

“And, we might add, the ministry of this congregation, and of Liberty church and other communities of faith and people of goodwill everywhere, and the life of this nation, and the future of humankind. The commandment to love. To love God and neighbor.”

“As we hear the bell toll here in our sanctuary with others across the land marking the Armistice 100 years ago, as we remember and give thanks for those who served and those who died in the Great War, let us also redouble our commitment to strive for the justice and peace that comes from those who follow the highest law: to love God and love neighbor.”.

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon was especially powerful for  me.

As I wrote in my eighth blog post in April 2011, “”The first foundation of my Christian faith is Jesus’ encounter with a clever lawyer in Luke 10:25-37. The lawyer asked Jesus a trick question as to what the lawyer had to do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead, the lawyer wanted Jesus to give an answer that could be twisted to incriminate him. Jesus ducked the question and instead responded with another question: ‘What is written in the law? How do you read it?’ The lawyer replied, ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.’ Jesus then said the lawyer had answered correctly and that he would live if he did exactly that.”[2]

“The lawyer, however, would not let it end there. He then asked what he thought was another trick question of Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Again, the lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead he wanted Jesus to provide an answer that could also be twisted against him. Again, however, Jesus did not answer directly, but instead told the Parable of the Good Samaritan without the punch line identifying the good neighbor. Once again Jesus asked the lawyer to fill in the blank, this time to identify the good neighbor in the story. The lawyer did just that by saying, ‘The one who had mercy on [the man by the side of the road].’  Jesus then said, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10: 29-37)” This Parable is the second foundation of my Christian faith.

Apparently the lawyer in this account in the Gospel of Luke was drawing upon two passages of the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 6:5 Moses is reminding a new generation of his people of the laws he had received from God on Mt. Sinai when Moses says, ‘You shall  love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.’ The other passage is Leviticus 19:18, where Moses in summarizing what God had delivered to him on Mt. Sinai says, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

Today, this precept—”Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.”—is still the first foundation of my Christian faith.

Therefore, I was pleased to hear the same message in this passage of Matthew with the reversal of the roles of Jesus and the lawyer from Luke. Now, the lawyer is posing the question, and Jesus is providing the same answer.

I also was pleased and surprised to hear Rev. Hart-Andersen’s add the metaphor of the clothesline when Matthew in the New Revised Standard Version says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Emphasis added.) This integrative device made sense to me.

Although I was not a Westminster member during the events in its history that were recounted in the sermon, hearing about them, especially as tied to the Bible with the clothesline metaphor brought tears to my eyes.

Returning to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the lessons of this story for me is that your neighbor whom you should love as yourself is anyone and everyone and that they can appear when you least expect them. That sets forth a daunting assignment. I have never met this challenge and never can.

That leads to the third foundation of my Christian faith. God knows that we fail and yet forgives us. The most powerful statement of God’s forgiveness comes in another story by Jesus, The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-31), . As an only son and as a father of two sons, I see myself in this story as the older, resentful son as well as the younger, lost son and more recently as the father.

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[1] The text of the sermon and the bulletin for the service are available on the church’s website. This service also included the installation of Rev. Alanna Simone Tyler as Associate Pastor for Justice and Mission, which will be covered in a separate post.

[2]  My Christian Faith, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011).

Thoughts About “The River Runs Through It”

Bill Linder-Scholer’s illuminating post about the novel “The River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean raises many fascinating points. Here are some additional reactions to the novel and to Bill’s post from a fellow member of Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Men’s Book Group.

When I first tried to read this novel several years ago and again this last Fall, I was put off by the novel’s first line’s equating religion (Christianity) and fly fishing. In my boyhood and for the last nearly 35 years, I have been seeking to be a Christian, but I am not now, and never have been, a fisherman of any sort, much less a fly fisherman. To equate the two seemed absurd.

Moreover, I was baffled Bill’s reference to fly fishermen’s being the “penultimate” or next-to-last species of anglers. Who was the first or “ultimate” species of anglers, I wondered. Bill told me what should have been obvious to this Presbyterian Christian: the ultimate angler is God through Jesus. After all, in the New Testament, Jesus recruits two fishermen, Simon and Andrew, to be “fishers of men.” (Matthew 4: 18-20; Mark 1:16-18) I also relooked at the first paragraph of the novel, which says that the two brothers’ father, the Scottish Presbyterian minister (John Norman Maclean), reminded them that “Christ’s disciples [were] fishermen” and that the two brothers were left to assume “that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite [disciple of Jesus], was a dry-fly fisherman.”

Bill’s allusion to the ultimate angler suggests another interpretation of the novel’s extensive (too extensive?) discussion of Paul and Norman’s careful selection of different lures to catch different kinds of fish in different kinds of waters. In short, the lure that works for one kind of fish does not work for another kind. Accordingly, Jesus’ disciples, including us, need to develop different ways of explaining our faith or evangelizing to different kinds of people in different circumstances. “One size does not fit all.”

I also was surprised by the novel’s second paragraph’s telling us that the Scottish minister-father repeatedly stressed to his two sons the importance of the first question of The Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man?” and its answer “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

Although that document is one of 11 confessions and creeds contained in The Book of Confessions of The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I do not recall any sermon or other discussion of that document in my years of being a Presbyterian. Perhaps its importance to the novel’s Scottish father-minister is due to the fact that it was written in 1646 and 1647 by the Westminster Assembly, a synod of English and Scottish theologians intended to bring the Church of England into greater conformity with the Church of Scotland to produce a means of educating children and those of “weaker capacity” about the Reformed Christian faith.

This emphasis on the answer to the first question of the Shorter Catechism also seems to oversimplify what Jesus endorsed as the greatest commandment: “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:25-37)

According to the older brother’s narration, his father held what I see as a very un-Presbyterian and un-Reform notion of God’s grace. For the father, the narrator says, “all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” This statement suggests that grace is earned by an individual’s good works, which is the very antithesis of the Protestant Reformation. Instead, God provides many gifts by grace to many people; the gifts are not earned by the individual’s efforts. The individual, on the other hand, must first accept the gift and then develop and improve the gift by dedication and diligence so that it becomes an art. In the novel we see this in Paul’s skill and art of fly-fishing. Another example would be an individual who has a God-given musical gift of playing the violin. He or she could ignore or reject that gift and not do anything with it. If, on the other hand, he or she accepts that gift and hones it through many hours of study and practice, then he or she develops the art of playing skillfully and beautifully. In so doing, the individual glorifies God, in the parlance of the Shorter Catechism and of the novel’s father.

Finally the novel’s theme of the relationships between the two brothers and with their parents is analogous in some ways to those relationships in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), an important Biblical passage for me as discussed in a prior post. In the novel and Parable, the younger brother is wayward while the older one is dutiful. Yet the fathers (and the mother in the novel) lavish love and attention on the younger brothers while ignoring the older brothers. In the Parable, the older one shows understandable signs of resentment of this treatment, but in the novel the older brother, who is the narrator, sounds like an objective bystander without any such resentment or jealousy. I find it difficult to accept the novel’s older brother’s lack of any emotion about this difference.

Perhaps Norman’s feelings on this issue leak out in his comments about the family’s Last Supper when their mother “was especially nice to me, since she hadn’t paid much attention to me so far, but soon she was back with fresh rolls, and she buttered Paul’s [but not mine]. ‘Here is your favorite chokecherry jelly,’ she said passing it to him [not me]. . . . Somewhere along the line she had forgotten that it was I who liked chokecherry jelly, a gentle confusion that none of her men minded.”

Thanks, Bill, for sharing your analysis of the novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Christian Faith

Jesus was a human being who had a special, if not unique, relationship with God the Creator.

By his life and by his death, Jesus demonstrated to the people of his time and to all people of all time how we as His brothers and sisters should live our lives.

The first foundation of my Christian faith is Jesus’ encounter with a clever lawyer in Luke 10:25-37. The lawyer asked Jesus a trick question as to what the lawyer had to do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead, the lawyer wanted Jesus to give an answer that could be twisted to incriminate him. Jesus ducked the question and instead responded with another question: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The lawyer replied, “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus then said the lawyer had answered correctly and that he would live if he did exactly that.

The lawyer, however, would not let it end there. He then asked what he thought was another trick question of Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Again, the lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead he wanted Jesus to provide an answer that could also be twisted against him. Again, however, Jesus did not answer directly, but instead told the Parable of the Good Samaritan without the punch line identifying the good neighbor. Once again Jesus asked the lawyer to fill in the blank, this time to identify the good neighbor in the story. The lawyer did just that by saying, “The one who had mercy on [the man by the side of the road].” Jesus then said, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10: 29-37)

Parenthetically as a lawyer myself I have to say that the lawyer in this passage was clever, but not clever enough. The really clever lawyer would not have let Jesus refuse to answer the question. Instead the lawyer would say something like “I am not here to answer questions. My job is to ask the questions. Yours is to answer my questions.” And if this encounter were in a courtroom, the lawyer would ask the judge to instruct the witness to answer the question.

Returning to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the lessons of this story for me is that your neighbor whom you should love as yourself is anyone and everyone and that they can appear when you least expect them. That sets forth a daunting assignment. I have never met this challenge and never can.

That leads to the second foundation of my Christian faith. God knows that we fail and yet forgives us. The most powerful statement of God’s forgiveness comes in another story by Jesus, The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-31), http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2015&version=NIV.  As an only son and as a father of two sons, I see myself in this story as the older, resentful son as well as the younger, lost son and more recently as the father.

The meaning of these two stories for me is captured by the third foundation of my Christian faith, the following statement by my personal saint, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero:

“The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.”

“We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is            another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.”

“No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings        wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.”

“That is what we are all about. We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.”

“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”

“We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a  future that is not our own.”